Life as a Yörük
Meryem Balıkçı and Ümmügülsüm Çelik live in Fethiye and, to anyone who doesn’t know them, they seem to be ordinary residents of this Mediterranean town, as indeed they are. But when they talk about their lives, a very different picture emerges and one that is shared by a decreasing percentage of Fethiye’s population: They are nomads.
Meryem Balıkcı is a woman of laughter and smiles. Her great love for the Yörük culture is immediately apparent, even though her experience of the lifestyle was dramatically truncated by her father’s death.
Too many undervalue the Yörük culture
She said she was deeply saddened that there was so little support for this old and rich culture and felt that they had been neglected and undervalued as a social group, especially by the Turkish middle classes.
“I think they mistakenly assume that all Yörük are undereducated, rather simple and primitive. Our lives were basic perhaps, but rich in history and with a genuine, heart-felt philosophy.”
A graduate of Akdeniz University, Balıkçı is intent on working to preserve not only her own nomadic identity but also the Yörük culture in general.
Teaching Yörük folk culture
Meryem now teaches Turkish folk culture and organizes courses in kilim and halı (carpet) weaving, as well as making carpets herself, but she does all this with little or no help from the authorities.
“I am sorry to say the Turkish people don’t think learning about our old culture is important. But for me, it is vital for Turkey that we preserve it in every way possible,” Balıkçı said.
Two women: two tribes
Her friend Ümmügülsüm Çelik, an Eldirek nomad, joined the conversation and soon the two women were chatting about their different tribes.
Ümmügülsüm comes from a small village on the way to Üzümlü called Eldirek (named for the Yöruk tribe), which is now rapidly being absorbed into the booming town of Fethiye. From there every summer, until the age of 12, she would go with her extended family to the mountains at the beginning of May.
“Most villages had their equivalent in the mountains. Boğalar village, Eldirek, Karaçuhla and Patlangıç for example,” she said. “Our prairie was in the grassy high altitude plateau of Seki. Unlike Meryem’s family we kept sheep. I remember it was a very hard life but one I still love and miss.”
Recording memories for posterity
Çelik, a retired teacher, has recorded the history of the “Eldirek Göçebe Yörükler” (Trek of the Eldirek Yörük) in a book, which she hopes to eventually have translated into English.
“I think it is very important for the world to realize how important the nomadic tribes of Turkey are for the country’s history and culture. We are an honorable and direct people. We don’t mess about; we believe in straight talking, not beating around the bush. Perhaps that is why some people find us difficult. We are independent and free, and like all nomads in the world that can be difficult for the authorities to handle,” she said.
Meryem and Ümmügülsüm agree that the life of a nomad is tough, for both the women and the men, but they both give credit to their ancestors for having a very equal society in terms of division of labor and gendered roles, with women playing a very important role in making decisions in the communities.
A hard but true life
“Both men and women work very hard because everything we needed had to be grown or made but really the women have to work like men.”
Yörük women have to be like men,” said Meryem. The two women laugh at the thought.
“But women were powerful in many ways. You know there was no gossip. Competition and money make for gossip. Yörük were all struggling and always helped and supported each other, whether it was building one of the big black tents or harvesting the wheat. We were there for each other in those days,” concluded Ümmügülsüm.
As well as supporting each other, many Yörük had their faith: be it Sunni or Alevi. But the Yörük culture has deep Shamanistic roots, which has influenced superstitions, legends and daily life.
All of this, they regret, is now at risk of being lost.
Next time: How to keep the Yörük heritage alive?
Read part one here